Virtual assistant
In order to find out if AI voice technology can work for your business, you should first test it out and use it as a consumer. — Getty Images/bee32

“Alexa, make my lunch.”

Say that and you’ll go hungry. Though voice-controlled virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant offer astounding functions, meal prep is not one of them. However, a voice assistant can make a lunch reservation for you, and it’s this sort of advancement that could bring voice commerce into the mainstream, say proponents of the emerging platform.

Voice commerce encompasses shopping and purchasing activities that use voice-recognition technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret and respond to the spoken word from live human beings. To better understand the opportunities, challenges and relevance for business, CO— asked experts how they see the future of voice commerce taking shape and whether or when it’s time for business owners to do something about it.

“Voice is to the future of retail as walking erect was to human evolution —a critical next step," technology futurist and anthropologist Thornton May told CO—. May, who is co-CEO and co-founder of new think tank Digital Value Institute and executive director at the IT Leadership Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., is widely respected for his technology research and forecasts.

Another big brain bullish on voice commerce is Jon Stine, research affiliate for the MIT Auto-ID Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While working at Intel, where he led global retail/CPG sales and strategy, Stine initiated a collaborative research effort involving Intel, the Auto-ID Lab and Capgemini that resulted in an influential white paper on voice technology and its potential to usher in a new era called “Conversational Commerce.”

The question is not whether, but when. And the answer is this: It’s already started, Stine said. Indeed, Walmart recently launched Walmart Voice Order, a grocery voice-ordering assistant that works across Google-powered platforms including Google Home, as well as iPhones.

Stine cited four market indicators that show that voice commerce is shaping up to be a major disruptor.

  • Prevalence of voice assistant technology not only in smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, but also in new automobiles, home appliances and more. “Google Assistant is on more than 1 billion devices,” he said. Amazon reported that its Alexa is on 100 million devices sold as of January and 500 million devices use Siri.
  • Growing adoption: Consumers are incorporating voice technology into their daily lives. “We will ask it to change a music station. We will ask directions,” Stine said. “Research indicates 42% of Amazon Alexa users have used their device and the Alexa voice assistant for retail and product-based information” such as inquiries about store business hours and product pricing.
  • Accelerants: Online grocery shopping is growing and replenishment of household consumables such as paper products, cleansers and other staples makes for a powerful use case, he said. “Basics replenishment will accelerate voice — or be accelerated by voice. I have no idea which will be cause and which will be effect,” Stine said.
  • Technology advancements: Consumers became acquainted with voice assistants by asking simple questions such as, “What time is it?” But Stine says that is a binary question, not conversation. “So much of the discussion of voice in commerce today is based on the current state of command-and-response. It’s what we know. It’s what we can describe.” However, Google’s new Duplex technology, which can place a call to book a dinner reservation and engage directly with the restaurant staffer who answers the phone, demonstrates conversational commerce is already here.

Sterling Hawkins, co-founder of Center for Advancing Retail & Technology, Los Angeles, sees potential for voice commerce and is measured about where it applies. Consumers who order the same menu item from a favorite restaurant every Friday night, for example, could be first adopters, he said.

There is a pattern in place, a history of past purchases and the pizzeria has payment information on file. It is here where dialogue between consumers and voice assistants can become more personalized and interactive. “If it knows you are vegan or gluten-free, it can converse with you about what you like – almost like [conversing with] someone you know,” Hawkins said.

Stine agrees that items purchased with frequency are a logical fit for AI voice technology.

“For that reason, it’s our bet, our hypothesis, that online grocery replenishment of fast-moving consumer goods will be the area where voice will hit first,” Stine added.

Businesses considering whether voice assistants might fit into operations need to use the technology themselves, Hawkins said. “You’d be surprised how many conversations I am in with retailers and senior executives talking about conversational commerce and they have not used it themselves. The most important thing is to engage with it. Engage by bringing in vendors, conversations at trade shows, pilot testing and use it as a consumer.”

Voice for solving problems

Pilot tests of voice assistants in the retail space, such as one under way at beverage chain BevMo!, Concord, Calif., will yield clues about how, when, where and whether consumers will interact with voice technology. BevMo! partnered with The Mars Agency in a five-store pilot test that uses the Alexa voice assistant and a custom software application called Smart Aisle that makes product recommendations to shoppers in stores.

“You can say, ‘Alexa, I am looking for a birthday present for my father-in-law.’ And it will ask you questions like, ‘Does he like whiskey or gin? Do you have a specific price point?’ and it will point you to a couple suggestions,” Hawkins said.

Pilot tests like the one at BevMo! are good ways to engage with new technology and observe how it’s received, Hawkins said. “If you can see the value for yourself and what the experience is, that is a good starting point — a great way to ground it so it doesn’t become too ethereal.”

Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst, Forrester Research, follows pilot tests of emerging technology and cautions businesses to proceed with care on investments in voice.

“It is always useful to be customer-centric and to ask: What is the pain point you are trying to solve? And for whom? Disentangle that from a service provider who is trying to sell you something or somebody in your own organization who has a bee in their bonnet about chasing innovation,” she said.

“You need to be mindful of the bets you place,” she told CO—. “Solve problems you have today versus chasing the silly things out there that you can wait to chase,” she added. For example, she said, if a company’s website promises that a product is in stock on a certain shelf in a specific store, is it actually there available for purchase, or are there data management, operational and logistical shortcomings to correct?

Exploration phase of voice technology

Stine of the Auto-ID Center acknowledges voice technology is in the exploration phase and there remain many questions around privacy, technological standards and interoperability. For example, he questioned if it will be necessary to develop and push into the marketplace an approach to voice technology similar to the Domain Name System (DNS), the Internet’s hierarchical directory that links easy-to-remember URLs like to their corresponding numerical IP addresses.

“Is there a need for an open voice naming system that would enable all forms of enterprise from retail to consumer goods, healthcare and connected cities?” he said.

As businesses consider whether voice technology fits into operations, Stine posed a few questions:

“Ask yourself: Is your brand positioned as that of an adviser? Do you wish to be an adviser? Are you in regular contact with your customers? If you have a zillion customers and meet with each [only] once a year, then voice is a ‘nice-to-have’ — down the road. But if you are in regular contact, this could be very important.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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